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Carter Flagstone would die before he would go back to prison.
Which might just happen if he didn't find out who had framed him for murder.
He rolled over on the makeshift bed he'd made in one of the unused barns at the Bucking Bronc Lodge, breathing in the smell of hay, fresh air and freedom.
A freedom that was temporary at best. One that had come at a cost. A guard had been injured in the prison escape, and fingers were pointing at him as the shooter.
His escape only made him look more guilty of that crime and the murder of that man named Dyer, the man he'd been convicted of killing five years ago.
The police had orders to shoot to kill. His damn mug shot was plastered all over the television and in the papers. And if that guard died and the cops caught him, and by chance he lived, he'd end up on death row.
Yep, Texas held one of the highest records for executions, and adding his name to the list would be his claim to fame.
Just like his sorry old man's name would have gone on the list if he hadn't developed lung cancer. Hell, the state had decided to save their money and the publicity. Killing a dying man just didn't seem worthy.
His bones creaked and his muscles ached as he unfolded his body from the floor and stood. The scars on his arms and chest looked stark and ugly in the thin stream of light seeping through the slats of the barn.
He'd always been a fighter, but prison had hammered in those instincts and made him better at it. Meaner. Tougher. Harder. Unrelenting.
He would use those skills now to find out who'd framed him, put him in jail and ruined his future.
Then he'd get on with his life.
A desolate emptiness filled him at the thought. What life? He'd lost it all the minute the police had slapped the handcuffs on him.
Even before that, he'd been on a downward spiral. He'd had a major rift with his two best friends, who were now rich and owned their own spreads. He'd drunk himself into bar fights and jail more than once before he was incarcerated and earned a reputation that meant no one would hire him if he tried to get a job.
And now his old man was dead, but his ranch had gone belly-up and the bastard hadn't even had the courtesy to will it to him. It was one last dig into his soul that said how much his father had hated him.
Outside, the sounds of the ranch burst to life. The gentle summer breeze fluttering the leaves on the trees. The noise of trucks cranking as workers started the day. The hush of a mare's tail swishing flies.
All sounds he'd missed and yearned for daily. Anything to replace the clank of metal chains, keys unlocking cell doors, feet padding in rhythm as the prisoners were led to the mess hall like cattle to the trough.
Well aware he'd return to that mundane life if he didn't make use of his time, he peeked through the crack in the door to see if the coast was clear. Cows grazed in the lush pastures, two geldings galloped across the flat ranch land, their hooves pounding the grass. The sound of a truck's engine rumbled down the dirt drive.
Maybe it was Frank Dunham, his buddy from the pen who had landed a job at the Bucking Bronc Lodge. Dunham had owed him and helped him hide out here for the past two days, but if the police found out, Dunham's parole would be revoked and he'd go back to jail.
Carter didn't want that on his conscience.
Sweat beaded on his neck as he watched the truck blaze a dusty trail toward the barn. No, not Dunham's. This truck was black, had shiny new chrome wheels, was newer.
He sucked in a breath, his pulse pounding. Twice today he'd seen choppers flying over the property. Had someone caught wind he was here, hiding out like a trapped animal? Had they called the cops?
His ears perked up, listening for a siren.
Then the truck sped past the barn and veered onto the turnoff for the main lodge. Clenching the edge of the barn door with a white-knuckled grip, he watched it disappear in the trail of dust, then finally managed to breathe again.
Another close call. Another reprieve.
It wouldn't last.
The last few days on the run he'd felt the devil breathing down his neck at every turn. The cops. The real killer.
The reality that he was a dead man walking.
Determined and knowing that he couldn't hide out on the Bucking Bronc for long, not with another group of campers due any day now, he unfolded the news article of the fundraiser rodeo Johnny had organized to raise money for the camp and stared at the picture of the woman who could save him.
God, she was beautiful.
Raven-black hair framed her heart-shaped face and delicate features, her high cheekbones accentuating eyes as rich and deep as dark chocolate. Those sinful eyes had mesmerized him, had seduced him. Had made him want to believe that a man like him could not only hold her in his arms but have her.
Those eyes had also held secrets. Pain. A gentle, unspoken understanding that had radiated from her touch.
She had talked of her Navajo ways, her training in medicine with the shaman, her desire to educate herself and become a doctor to help her people. She was also an advocate for the Native American segment and a staunch supporter of environmental issues.
Another seductive quality.
Or so he'd thought.
Dammit. It had all been an act.
She was the reason he'd spent five years in prison, and her day of reckoning had come.
The date on the newspaper proved she'd attended the rodeo a couple of weeks before. Which meant she might be living close by.
For the past two days, he'd been lurking around the ranch hoping she'd show again. Dunham was on the lookout as well, but so far no luck.
His mind rolled back to that fateful night five years ago, and once again he cursed his stupidity. He'd been pissed at his life in general. Mad at his old man for doing an interview from jail, yet again dragging the Flagstone name through the mud.
He'd also had another run-in with Johnny and Brandon. Brandon had beat the hell out of him for sleeping with Kim, his former girlfriend and Johnny's sister. It hadn't mattered to Brandon that he'd broken up with Kim and crushed her heart. That Carter had only tried to comfort her.
Hell, it hadn't mattered to Johnny, either. He'd accused Carter of taking advantage of his sister.
So he'd gone on a drunken tear and ended up at a bar near the reservation. That was where he'd met Sadie Whitefeather.
His body hardened just thinking about her luscious body and the way she'd wound her long legs around him. Her long black hair had hung down her back to her waist, her skin a creamy, sun-kissed Navajo brown, her big, dark eyes haunting and sultry.
One night in her bed and he'd fallen madly in lust.
So he'd gone back for another.
But that night had been his fatal mistake. He'd woken up with no memory of what had happened, with blood on his hands, a dead man on the floor beside him, a man named Dyer who he didn't even know, and the police on his tail.
She had drugged him. That had to be the explanation.
Then she'd disappeared and left him to rot in jail.
He tapped the picture with his finger. Now he'd escaped and he intended to find her. And he would make her talk.
If she didn't, he'd show her firsthand the hard lessons he'd learned in prison, where she had sent him.
Sadie Whitefeather shivered at the news photo of Carter Flagstone as the story of his prison escape and criminal record flashed across the TV screen perched on the wall above the bar.
His dark brown hair was shaggy now, his face unshaven, rough with stubble, his eyes tormented, his strong, stubborn jaw set in anger.
He looked hardened, scarred and lethal. All deadly to a woman whose dreams of making love to him still taunted her.
Not that he would want her in his bed again. No, he'd probably kill her.
"Flagstone is considered armed and dangerous," the reporter said. "Police have orders to shoot to kill. If you have any information regarding his whereabouts, please contact the police."
Her fingers itched to make that call. But she didn't know where he was.
Only that he was most likely coming for her.
Of course she couldn't blame him.
What she had done
She sucked in a sharp breath, then rubbed her finger over the prayer beads around her neck. Her mother's people had taught her that all life was sacred. That all things on the earth were alive and connected. That all things alive should be respected.
But she had been a party to a murder and sent an innocent man to prison for it.
Shame clawed at her, but she fought it, struggling with her emotions and reminding herself of the circumstances.
She had had no choice.
The sound of the bell over the doorway tinkled, barely discernible over the wail of the country music floating through the Sawdust Saloon. But her senses were well-honed to detect the sound, knowing it might alert her to trouble.
A cloudy haze of smoke made it difficult to make out the new patron as he entered. He was big, so tall that his hat nearly touched the doorway. And he had shoulders like a linebacker.
He hooked his fingers in his belt loops, standing stock still, his stance intimidating as he scanned the room. Shadows hovered around him, and the scent of danger radiated from him like bad whiskey.
She froze, her heart drumming as she studied his features. Carter?
Or the evil monster she'd been running from for five years?
She hated to be paranoid, but life had come at her hard the night she'd met Carter.
He wasn't the only one with scars. She had her own to prove it.
Her finger automatically brushed the deep, puckered X carved into her chest, now well hidden by her shirt, and traced a line over it. For a moment, she couldn't move as she waited to see the man's face in the doorway. He was imposing like Carter and her attacker. Muscular. Big-boned. Large hands.
His boots pounded the wood, crushing the peanut shells on the floor as he moved into the light, and her breath whooshed out in relief.
Even in the dim lighting, she could see he had dark-blond hair.
Carter had thick brown hair, so dark it was almost black.
Her attackera shaved head, and he'd smelled like sweat and tobacco.
A group of the men in the back room playing pool shouted, toasting with beer mugs, and two men to her right gave her a flirtatious grin and waved at her to join them.
Sadie inwardly cringed, but remembered she needed this job, and threw up a finger gesturing that she would be right there.
"Your order's up!" the bartender yelled to Sadie.
Amber Celton, blond, boobs falling out of the cheap lacy top of her waitress uniform, and a woman who would screw any man in pants, sashayed up beside her and gestured toward the TV screen. "Man, I don't care if that cowboy is armed and dangerous. He could tie me in his bed anytime."
Sadie wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the tray of beer she needed to deliver. Carter had been seductive, all right.
All that thick, scraggly hair. Those deep whiskey-colored eyes that looked tormented, like they were hunting for trouble. That crooked nose that looked as if it had been broken and needed kissing.
And his mouth
thick lips that scowled one minute as if he was the devil himself, then twitched up into a lazy grin that had made her weak in the knees.
And Lord, those big, strong, wide hands. What he could do with those hands was sinful. Downright lethal.
He had destroyed her for wanting another man as a lover.